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Will Partnerships Bring Digital Equity to Rural America?

While infrastructure challenges and digital literacy gaps still impede digital equity efforts in many rural parts of America, public and private entities are increasingly looking to new partnerships to bridge the divide.

A landscape view features a sun setting over a rural road with power lines on each side.
More partnerships are being launched to combat the digital divide, and experts believe these collaborative efforts will continue to be an important part of the solution in rural America.

Partnerships like Tucson Connected and The Town Link program in Oakland, Calif., have demonstrated how local governments can partner with community organizations to offer individuals access to broadband and devices — as well as the necessary skills to make the most of these tools.

For rural Americans, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2021 found only 72 percent say they have access to a broadband Internet connection at home.

So while stakeholders look optimisticallyor skeptically — to the money coming to states and localities from the federal level through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), there is work to be done to ensure that this money is distributed in an equitable way.

And what exactly does equity mean in this space? United States Department of Agriculture Under Secretary of Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small told Government Technology that “it means making sure that no matter who you are, or where you live, you have access to this modern-day utility.”

While some connectivity challenges are unique to rural communities, partnerships can help support adoption within communities through skills training, awareness campaigns and more.


To see how partnerships can target the digital equity gaps in rural areas, it is important to understand how the factors impacting access in these communities compare to those nationwide.

For one, the development of broadband infrastructure in rural areas is more challenging than in urban areas. As Torres Small explained, this challenge is exacerbated in rural communities because the houses are fewer and farther between. From a technical standpoint, it’s more difficult to build those connections for communities with limited roads.

Christopher Ali, an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, explored the challenges related to the rural-urban digital divide in his book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity.

He noted that in some rural areas and tribal communities, there are simply no networks available. This is a different situation than you might find in urban areas where the networks exist, but connections to them are not yet established; the networks are unaffordable; or they have not been maintained or updated.

And then there is the matter of how business models of Internet service providers can negatively impact rural communities. Ali explained the role digital redlining plays in rural broadband gaps, noting that because authority over broadband deployment has in some ways been ceded to commercial networks, those private companies can select locations based on where they foresee the largest return on investment.

And while the IIJA “has the potential to do a tremendous amount of good,” he underlined his concern that the largest providers will be privileged by the Federal Communications Commission as has been done in the past.

“In doing so, they have diminished the role that local and regional ISPs, cooperatives, and municipalities play in high-speed broadband connectivity,” he said.


Deploying broadband infrastructure to rural areas is only one step to bridging the digital divide, and experts are increasingly looking to new partnerships and coalitions to fill the gaps.

Torres Small’s belief is that “partnerships are crucial to the fabric of rural life,” as they help these communities overcome the challenge of having small populations with limited resources.

If a rural electric cooperative does not provide a service in a certain area, for example, they are still able to support expansion in other ways by making access to poles easier for local government or another local provider to attach fiber.

In addition, she said, it is important for stakeholders to work with partners to accomplish the technical work required for inclusion, from identifying gaps to applying for grants.

Joshua Seidemann, vice president of policy for NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, believes that the federal government is taking significant steps in terms of getting the networks built and making services affordable for low-income consumers — specifically the Affordable Connectivity Program. However, he underlined the need for support from those outside of the public sector to make sure participants can understand and access the options available to them.

The pandemic has been an “inflection point” for this issue. “Now we all know why it’s important, and now the task in front of us is just to really make sure that nobody gets left off that train,” Seidemann said.

And a major piece of ensuring nobody gets left out is expanding digital literacy, Seidemann added. To that end, Ali emphasized the critical role libraries have played in digital skills training in rural areas through public-private partnerships.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront, Ali explained, as educators, businesses, politicians and other stakeholders have been able to come together to state that broadband is not a luxury, but a necessity.

With historic funding coming in, Ali said states should focus on ensuring that their broadband offices are properly staffed. In addition, they should be working with local and regional providers and localities. If states are not properly equipped for the influx of funding, they may end up forfeiting some of it.

“This is going to be an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.